Hrpotential’s Key Themes ufhrd2017

Having just returned from the Universidade Europeia in Lisbon, I am keen to share my learning from attending my first academic conference; the University Forum for Human Resource Development.

John Watkins

(John Watkins)

One of the most interesting papers was me was on the dimensions of HRD consultant professionalism by John Watkins. John, from Coventry University London, highlighted the three levels of purpose for which an HRD consultant may be brought into the organisation; as an ‘expert’ filling a gap in organisational knowledge or skills; for social learning and co-creation of solutions; or as a critical outsider who can shoulder the blame for management’s existing wishes to implement difficult policies. Clearly the boundaries between these can be blurred, with Watkins noting that some so-called HRD ‘experts’ could have as little as 5 year’s experience. Watkins’ point echoed wider concerns expressed at the conference, such as in Bob Hamlin’s keynote speech, of the lack of credibility afforded to the HRD profession in general. One perceived solution is the further integration of scholarly HRD and HRD practice. Both the numerous paper presentations this year from both HRD practitioners and ex-practitioners, and a strengthening of the practitioner element at next year’s conference, is encouraging in this regard.

Peter Kuchinke (Peter Kuchinke)

Values and ethics, particularly against the backdrop of the ‘post truth’ era was also a focus. Peter Kuchinke reminded us that virtue ethics are in the essence of what it means to be human and that work is a major setting for learning through ethical and moral dilemmas; that is how we prove our worth. Yet, as a consultant he has had difficulty trying to talking to organisations about introducing virtue ethics. Kuchinke asked us how we can introduce virtuous language, such as courage, honesty and transparency into organisational dialogue. Alongside this, a lack of effective HR standards frameworks was frequently mentioned against the backdrop of recent corporate scandals. However, there was a range of opinions regarding the level of control required to ensure the effectiveness of standards. Charles Saliba and Dr Khalil Dirani’s joint practitioner/scholar presentation emphasised putting processes in place to consider human risks at all levels. However, Valerie Anderson’s keynote reminded us that a compliance mentality does not enable people to make the ‘right’ decisions; autonomy and trust are also required.

Nicholas Clarke

(Nicholas Clarke)

This is closely linked to Nicholas Clarke’s presentation challenging a model of linear decision making in responsible leadership. Clarke noted that such linear models are based on simple decisions and tested via hypothetical questions (‘What would you do if…’). Clarke’s research demonstrates that decision making, particularly where an ethical dimension is involved, is much more messy. His model sees the decision maker as going through a process of sensemaking when confronted by an issue. This is impacted by a range of factors including emotion, experience and “closeness” to those involved. Importantly, the justification of the decision comes after, and not before as previously thought. Clarke not only demonstrated that leaders heavily engaged with their staff found it harder to justify difficult decisions affecting them, but that leaders who were physically removed from their staff could justify those difficult decisions more easily. I can also see this linking to Dr Cliodhna MacKenzie’s paper which demonstrated the dangers inherent in organisations following a path based on assumptions about the problem. In this case the organisation struggled to solve it’s perceived gender issues because their solutions were rooted in misconceptions. In responding to these issues in decision making, perhaps it’s not only virtue ethics we need, but mindfulness (Chandana Sanyal/Dr Clare Rigg).

(Dr Cliodhna MacKenzie)

I very much enjoyed learning from this, my first academic conference in the beautiful city of Lisbon! I look forward to seeing everyone again here at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University for next year’s ufhrd conference!


The Art of Seeing

Some time ago I read a neuroscience book that suggested a technique for seeing issues from another person’s perspective. The process, accompanied by an explanatory diagram, involved imagining yourself physically occupying the same space as that person, as well as subsequently picturing yourself as an impartial observer. This was supposed to occur as you were interacting with said other person, which the book reassured would become easier with practice. Despite the impossibility, in my opinion, of accompanying all these difficult tasks at once, it completely ignores the important cues that people give regarding their potential feelings and behaviour, both verbally and physically.

I am planning to undertake visual research methods for my PhD (as opposed to purely interviews or surveys for example). My reason for this is that the visual, or ‘photovoice’, can empower participants and allow access to rich data that might otherwise have been undiscovered. Most importantly perhaps, it allows the individual to present their own perspective, with their own images, which are described by their own words. There are also clearly some ethical questions to be addressed (i.e. it’s impact is not necessarily all positive), which I’m continuing to explore in the literature review for my methodology.

I’ve read two great books (among others) that challenge the way we see; how we see certain things, and not others. How what we don’t see (or don’t capture in an image) is as important as what we do. How images are permanent, yet subject to individual interpretation.

The first book is Ways of Seeing by John Berger, recommended to me by my PhD supervisor. The book is based on a 1970s BAFTA award-winning tv art series, and contains both written and visual essays. In other words, there are essays that consist only of pictures. This prompts the reader to look, think and make their own interpretation, guided by the other essays in the book.

The second book is Visual Methodologies by Gillian Rose. Near the beginning of the book Rose talks about a photograph that she shows to her students depicting a couple looking at a painting in a shop window. The photograph is taken from inside the shop so the central painting is only seen from behind. The subject of photograph is then the couple themselves, which leads to multiple questions. What are they doing there? What are they thinking? Why are they behaving in that way? And ultimately, what is the painting of? These and many other questions extend beyond what is captured in the image.

An important lesson from visual methodology is the acceptance of different ways of seeing. We do not need a technique to step into somebody else’s shoes. We need to listen and observe and understand. We may make our own interpretation but we need to recognise that is all that it is; an interpretation.

NB. I haven’t mentioned the featured image here (American Gothic by Grant Wood), although it is another image subject to wide interpretation, imbuing its subjects with thoughts, feelings and histories. 

Place Based Leadership

“The social world is accumulated history” (Bourdieu, 1986)

“The social space we occupy has been historically generated.” (Skeggs, 1997)

One of the best parts of research is when you stumble across one or two pieces of information that enable your current thinking to ‘fall into place’, even if this is only temporary. That was the feeling I got when yesterday when I came across these two quotes in quick succession. They’re from two of the theorists that I see as being central to my thesis. When this happens, it can be interesting to consider the process of crystallisation behind such moment of clarity. 

I’ve been thinking about the historicisation of my research for some time. I see this as the need to situate my research within its historical development. This is underpinned by an attempt to avoid what the political rhetoric is always driving us to do- to consider the ‘now’ as a watershed moment that requires different and extraordinary measures to resolve. What we tend to forget is that history repeats itself and the current structures are often a reproduction of what existing before.

What also needs to be avoided is ahistoricism, which is either a lack of concern or a misrepresentation of history. Often it suits the powers that be to cherry pick history in order to legitimate the present, but that does not help us change or learn from our mistakes. For example, within my research context it is recognising that today’s unemployment aren’t worse than the past, which is what we are told in order to justify more stringent controls. In fact, even those so called ‘more’ stringent controls have been tried in the 1930s (see Fletcher, 2015 for a discussion) and they weren’t ‘effective’ then either. 

This brings us to our present context, and also something which is being increasingly mentioned in academic circles; ‘place’. Most recently this was at the BAM Identity and Leadership SIG event, where Brad Jackson (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) discussed the importance of place to leadership. Initial questions at the event had raised concerns of how place fits with ‘purpose’ (considered by many to be one of the most central leadership concepts). What was drawn out by the ensuing discussion was that the two may be intimately linked, for what is purpose without considering place, and vice versa? Our place defines what we can and can’t do, what we can and can’t influence. 

The ‘space’ we move through is increasing via  globalisation and technology (virtual space). Focussing on this bigger picture leads the detail to be lost. Thereby we lose the detail of the impact of leaders’ decisions. Issues such as inequality become masked (for example, think about how distant world news would have seemed 100 years ago compared to today; Local news would have seemed much more relevant in comparison). 

Realities only becomes clear when leaders are grounded via place. Adding the additional dimension of historicisation can also overcome the inertia that place can imply. Given the current political climate I would like to see discussions of place based leadership continue to increase in both academic and professional fields. 


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. Available from:

Fletcher, D. (2015). Workfare – a blast from the past? Contemporary work conditionality for the unemployed in historical perspective, Social policy and society, 14(3), 329-339. 

Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class and gender. London: Sage Publications. 

Also see Jonathan Murdoch, ‘Post Structural Geographies’, and Danny Dorling, ‘Injustice’, for relevant discussions. 


From National Library of Scotland exhibition of maps open until 2 April 2017 

My Own Reflection

I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda with my middle daughter. I smile, not just at the funny parts, but when Matilda is curled up with her nose in a book while the rest of the family is watching TV. Certainly my parents were not like Matilda’s, but I do remember them making objections to me doing the same, particularly in social situations.

When I had my PhD interview, I was asked how I would be able to cope with the solitude. A PhD can be a lonely endeavour. Again, I had to smile. Because essentially, that is what I’m used to. And that is what I enjoy. Silence. In my new home office, I can shut my door and be with my books and my thoughts. My husband has been expressing his growing concern by making excuses for me to have to go outside.

With the PhD in full swing, every precious free moment needs to be dedicated to moving it along, hence the neglect of the blog alongside many other ‘non-essentials’. Remembering I’d signed up to attend a BAM Special Interest Group on Friday caused a moment of panic on re-reading the programme – that’s not related to my PhD!! Researching unemployment is probably about as far from researching leadership as you can get. Having to trudge through snow didn’t help encourage me across the threshold either.

But I’m glad I did. Not only did it provide fresh ideas, but was an important reminder how ‘taking a break’ can fuel progress. Not least is having to articulate (out loud! and not just to yourself or on scraps of paper) what it is you are actually researching.

The speaker who ‘struck’ me the most was Ann Cunliffe; Professor of Organisation Studies from the University of Bradford. Her simple emphasis on relationality and the intersubjective is going to help relieve the writer’s block I’m having over incorporating ‘the social’ into my discussion of modern social class.

My other thought was that I wished that leaders I’ve known throughout my career in industry could have listened to her powerful words; That leaders need to accept difference  and also understand it, because if they don’t listen, eventually all they will hear is silence. That everything is about relationships, and treating people like humans, not resources. That leaders need to know themselves before they can effectively lead others.



An important way in which we learn about ourselves is reflection. Critiquing is ingrained in academia, and for someone with a professional background it can be difficult to take. But what I’ve learned from experience is that it must be welcomed with open arms, because it really is the only way we improve. Unfortunately the business world just isn’t set up for people to have open, honest conversations about how things are going.

I can count the leaders I’ve know who were humble on one hand. A leader who reconsiders what they’ve done and says sorry doesn’t really fit with the typical expectation of a leader today – which is somebody to put on a pedestal. Instead, we need to encourage the Reflexive Leader with the simple message that despite the hierarchy, nobody is above anybody else – nobody’s position abdicates them from the responsibility of treating others as human.


Woman gets top job

The news that Theresa May has been appointed leader of the Conservative Party, and tomorrow will Prime Minister, brought back to my mind some research I came across while developing my new module. She is adamant she will make a success of Brexit; that which has been called the poisoned chalice, and long “May” she succeed (the pun headline writers will surely be having a field day after Cameron).

Here is the excerpt from Human Resource Development (second edition) by David McGuire:

“The concept of the ‘glass cliff’ was introduced by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam (2004) to explore a phenomenon whereby women’s suitability for promotion rises when the chances of failure increases. In their research, Ryan and Haslam (2007) found that because women were more likely to be appointed to top management positions during crisis periods, the rise to their leadership increase and they are more likely to encounter rising levels of conflict and higher stress levels leading to greater exposure to criticism.”

Of course, May has been compared to Margaret Thatcher. This is largely because that was the only other woman to ever hold her new position. Although they are of the same political persuasian, May’s standing in that regard has already been questioned. Immediately after her inaugural speech yesterday, she was criticised for stealing the content, mainly from New Labour but also from a host of other prominent (male) politicians. Because a woman can’t have her own ideas. And it obviously goes without saying that she only got the job because everyone else pulled out…

I think (hope, pray) she will do a good job.

A Tale of Two Voters

My dad turned 70 last year. He’s a lifelong right-wing staunch Tory who completes The Telegraph crossword daily. As you may expect he’s very traditional; he was and still is the epitome of a very anti-liberal parent (and grandparent). To me he’s an enigma, yet I have a sneaking suspiscion he’s a working class soul trapped in a middle class body. Him and his wife split their time between Yorkshire and France, where he’s still climbing on roofs doing up their converted barn.

About a month ago my dad was desperate to ask me if I’d voted yet. “Dad” I laughed, “It’s not until the 23rd!”. He  however had already signed and sealed his postal vote and was desperate to impress on me to Vote Remain. I was surprised at this new openness (he never told me he was married for 10 years) but glad we were on the same page.

On Saturday we visited my brother and sister-in-law. They live in a nice gated community just outside of Sunderland. His dad is a jolly, open man who used to be a successful greengrocer in the city, where he now lives a comfortable retirement. He voted Leave because we can’t deport foreign murderers.

Those looking at the dry statistics of who voted what have been quick to blame the older generation. Now we’re not in the EU any more we clearly need a different scapegoat. But before you write my dad off as the one Baby Boomer who didn’t want to crush the youth of today, I believe my story makes another point.

Two men,  both relatively comfortable. They’re roughly the same age so it wasn’t that which made the difference in their voting preferences. What did?

There are those who have argued that social class is dead. Globalisation has opened the doors to social mobility. Individualisation has destroyed the class collectivity (Trade Unions, jobs-for-life). This week has proved that those theories are fundamentally flawed.

If we don’t tackle the underlying reasons for this rift in our Country we are truly doomed. People vote because of their own personal circumstances not because they want to hurt others. Let’s stop pointing the finger and start looking for answers.

No Going Back

The small, now defunct, local authority at which I started my career had a room termed “the bunker”; a veritable treasure trove of dusty government papers, untouched by data laws, hidden behind large metal locked doors. For young apprentices like me, a shift in the bunker was like some sort of initiation. It was here we found old sets of 1970s committee minutes.

How strange it was to read, in typeset, of the women secretaries tendering their resignations because they were getting married. From our vantage point of hindsight we laughed at their predicament as only young ambitious women privileged with opportunity can.

My mum used to tell me that as a child all she wanted was a typewriter, but she believed in Santa Claus so much that she didnt tell anybody, and so year after year, her wish never came true. As a child of the 1950s, born to a generation older than the parents of her peers (my grandad was 53 when she was born), she was an unusual mix of modern and traditional. Although intelligent and gifted, she worked from home as a mobile hairdresser until I was around 8, baking homemade egg custards and hand sewing our clothes.

My research into unemployment has uncovered some fascinating stories, in particular the story of Singer outlined in “Falling from Grace” by . For women of the past who gave up work to get married, their prized wedding present was a sewing machine by the top brand, Singer. It’s factories in Port Elizabeth, New York and Clydebank in Glasgow provided work for tens of thousands of local people. In a spiralling descent,as demand declined attempts to improve productivity destroyed the pride and familial working relationships that had made the brand great. By the 1980s its factories were gone, decimating community ties and leaving a legacy of mass unemployment.

For many that gap has never been filled and those people aren’t swallowing the neoliberal political narrative that we’ve off shored those dirty, hard jobs in the name of progress. They’ve lost a sense of commitment, pride and security that previous generations promised them. Manual jobs are constructed as “unskilled” and the unemployed (including stay at home parents) are tarred with the same “lazy scrounger” brush. The belief that “any job is better than no job” means low unemployment figures hide a dearth of people just scraping by.

The Welsh town showered with EU money yet still voted out is clear case in point. They don’t want the shiny new sports centre and shops, they want the return of the heavy industry that defined them. In communities across the country it’s the same story, be it ship building (Hartlepool), car manufacturing or coal mining. The destruction of British firms that “made this country great”, and could have been our means to self-reliance, started a long long time ago. Most of us may wish to confine those times to the bunker, to be occasionally wheeled out to laugh at how crazy they were; but for some, that was the best period of their lives.

I voted for Remain for lots of reasons. I believe we’re better together, that to leave will cost astronomical amounts of money we don’t have and personally (doesn’t everyone vote personally) things were good for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t think things need to change.

(N.B. The photograph is my mum as a little girl in the 1950s being held by her sister on her wedding day. My auntie gave up her job as a secretary to start a family).